Moses Osiru pitches his integrated approach to aflatoxins

On 23 and 24 September, the CGIAR Science Forum 2013 on ‘Nutrition and health outcomes: targets for agricultural research’ featured a parallel session on food safety.

It was organized by Delia Grace from the International Livestock Research Institute as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH)

Delia opened the session arguing the case for agricultural interventions for food safety.

The session drew on examples of aflatoxin control as an example of agriculture-based interventions for human health.

Five speakers ‘pitched’ their research initiatives to a panel representing investors and the audience. The pitches led in to a discussion on priorities to achieve health outcomes through research on food safety.

Poisons produced by fungi

IITA’s Fen Beed introduced participants to aflatoxins – poisons produced by Aspergillus species and infecting crops like maize, groundnut, nuts, spices and many others.  Depending on the degree of contamination in food and feed, they cause death, cancer, immuno-suppression and stunting of children. They are passed from mothers to babies; and from feed to milk. Due to the risks to human and animal health, international trade strictly regulates contamination levels of products that may be affected by aflatoxins. Mitigation of aflatoxins is therefore both a food safety and a market access issue.

Five mitigation approaches

The aflatoxin challenge was used as a focus to bring together and assess 5 current approaches to mitigation:

  • Breeding aflatoxin-resistant maize: George Mahuku, CIMMYT
  • Biological control of aflatoxins: Peter Cotty, University of Arizona
  • Integrated management of aflatoxins in maize and groundnuts: Ranajit Bandyopadhyay, IITA
  • Genetic enhancement of groundnuts to resist aflatoxins, Hari Upadhyaya: ICRISAT
  • Integrated groundnut aflatoxin management:  Moses Osiru, ICRISAT

The role of research investors was taken by Laurian Unnevehr (IFPRI), Tom Randolph (Livestock and Fish research program) and Wycliffe Kumwenda (National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi). The panelists challenged the presenters on the science and potential large scale impact of their approaches. As part of the exercise, the investor panel and the audience ‘invested’ token funds in each initiative as a device to surface different perspectives. After the counting, the investment portfolio of the panel was quite different to that of the audience.

Tom Randolph: “The investors were attracted most to the two integrated control programs, one rolling out a generic control program across crops and across Africa, and the other supporting improved control for groundnuts in southern Africa. These demonstrated thoughtful attention to a mix of control strategies and the incentives that will be needed to ensure uptake and sustained provision and use by focusing on enabling policies and partnership with the private sector. The investors didn’t ignore the other research efforts, however! They also invested in further development of the control technologies themselves: biocontrol and breeding for aflatoxin resistance in maize and groundnuts. It was recognized that investments in these efforts serve to complement those that should be demonstrating the commitment of the private sector for taking up biocontrol and the research investments in the other breeding drivers for drought resistance and yield. The session helped to underline the need to better demonstrate our potential for short term benefits while ensuring an appropriate balance of longer term discovery research.”


Delia Grace: “With nearly one billion hungry and two billion suffering from the hidden hunger caused by micro-nutrient deficiency, there is massive interest in the role of agriculture in better feeding poor people. However, food security is not enough. The food that feeds us also sickens and kills us. Food-borne disease is the single most common disease in the world, causing around 5 billion episodes of gastrointestinal illness a year. Diarrhoea (between one third and two thirds related to food) is among the top killers of children in most poor countries. This session focused on the role of agricultural research in improving the safety of food in poor countries.

Among the important messages were:

  • Building strong links with public health, including Food Safety authorities is important;
  • Food safety in informal markets is often neglected: strong evidence on cost and benefits is needed to convince policy makers;
  • Innovations have great potential for improving food safety;
  • In informal markets and subsistence systems, we need models for effective governance;
  • CGIAR food safety research can have impact by linking with commodity and system CRPs.”

The presentations